Tuesday’s Primaries Could Be a Showcase for Party Divisions

BY Carolyn O'Hara  May 18, 2010 at 10:30 AM EST

U.S. Rep Joe Sestak
U.S. Senate hopeful Rep. Joe Sestak campaigns in Philadelphia, Penn.

In politics, winning is everything. And over the next few days there will be a lot of airtime and ink devoted to the winners of the Tuesday Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas Senate primaries.

But the most interesting results on Tuesday night won’t be the final tallies. They will be the county tallies coming out of those states. Those county numbers may offer an early look at the intra-party divides within the Democratic and Republican parties as the election year begins to shift into a higher gear.

In both states, “establishment candidates” – those with the backing of the party organization – are struggling against insurgents who represent different elements of their respective parties.

In Kentucky, Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who is backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is in trouble against Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and tea party activist. And up in Pennsylvania, incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched from Republican to Democrat, is facing Rep. Joe Sestak, who has criticized Specter for being too much a part of Washington.

When the results come in, the Patchwork Nation county types will provide some insight into the moods within the respective parties in each of the states.

Evangelicals and Service Workers in the Bluegrass State

There is a distinct Republican tilt to Kentucky. John McCain won the state with 57 percent of the vote in 2008. But there are different stripes of conservatism in the Bluegrass State.

The two biggest sets of counties in Kentucky fall into two types in the Patchwork Nation breakdowns – Evangelical Epicenters and Service Worker Centers. Both those types are pretty reliably Republican, but the Evangelical Epicenters hold deeper social conservative beliefs (more values voters) while the Service Worker Centers tend to have fewer Evangelical adherents and follow economic issues more closely. Both have below-average incomes.

Counties are not islands, of course, and there is something of an evangelical bent to Kentucky in general, but there are differences as well.

Consider Jackson and Leslie Counties. Both are Service Worker counties and both gave more than 80 percent of their vote to McCain in 2008, but neither have especially high populations of Evangelicals – about 20 percent of their residents. Just under them in the McCain vote were Clinton and Casey Counties, Evangelical Epicenters where about 35 percent of the population are part of some evangelical denomination.

Why is that significant? Because the tea party movement has had some problems with the cultural conservatives in the Republican Party. Many in the Christian right believe the tea party is too focused on fiscal issues and not enough on social issues – like gay marriage and abortion.

If Rand Paul, carrying the tea party banner, is able to carry the Evangelical counties in Kentucky as well as the Service Worker Centers, it would mean that division had been smoothed over, at least in Kentucky, and it would bode well for Paul and tea partiers in the state.

(Already there are some signs that Paul may have closed that divide. Last week Focus on the Family’s James Dobson reversed himself and endorsed Paul.)

The Cities and the ‘Burbs in Pennsylvania

In 2008, Barack Obama did not carry most of the counties in Pennsylvania, but he carried the state because he did very well in two areas – the Industrial Metropolis counties holding the big cities and the wealthy Monied ‘Burb counties around Philadelphia.

Those are the two types of counties that will be the most interesting to watch Tuesday because they hold different kinds of voters.

The big city Industrial Metropolis counties – Allegheny and Philadelphia – tend to vote more heavily Democratic than other places. They are also places where the influence of the Democratic establishment – something Arlen Specter has – carries weight.

Big turnout in those places, especially among African Americans, favors Specter.

The wealthy Monied ‘Burbs around Philadelphia, while they lean Democratic, are more open to swinging between the two parties and they are less likely to be influenced by what the establishment says. Big turnout there may favor Sestak and set those places to be a power center for the Democrats in the fall.